PR: What’s in a name?

al-murray-pub-landlordOne of my favourite comedians is Al Murray. His Pub Landlord creation is brilliant.

It is a dramatic masterpiece as befits the descendent of William Makepeace Thackeray.

I particularly like his routine about employment when he asks members of the audience to shout out their job titles.

The more pompous they sound the faster and sharper his put-down.

The character is an unreconstructed racist sexist lout so hardly surprising that in response to a woman saying her job is pretty much anything he retorts with “Secretary!” or “Nurse!”

The wit in the Al Murray routine is not just to poke fun at the character he plays, but also to burst the pomposity of modern job titles and descriptions of occupations which in yesteryear were altogether more mundane.

This all started in UK when people started redesignating bin men as environmental waste recycling operatives, and calling secretaries “personal assistants.” One of my daughters is a PA so no doubt she would be throwing things at me now, but fortunately she doesn’t know I have a blog!

In my game of PR (pubic relations) people are particularly sensitive about their titles and what we call our graft. It comes of thinking we are wordsmiths like journalists and proper writers I suppose. And of course mostly what we do for a living is apply lipstick to a pig, so not surprising I suppose that we should be minded to give ourselves a bit of a makeover.

When I was a client of PR agencies I was always bemused by the way they styled themselves.

I recall agencies telling me they were not in the PR business, deary me no, that’s what those fluffies do – selling celebs and baked beans. What we do they would tell me is issues management, or strategic communications, we are “in the change business” was always my favourite.

With hindsight l can hear The Pub Landlord (who had not been invented then) in my head shouting “it’s PR luv!”

When I was “in-house” (that means working for a proper company that makes or sells stuff) in my various incarnations we re-styled PR as Communications. Then it morphed into being Corporate Affairs because I thought that sounded more important.

I had an un-concluded argument with my American masters over Corporate Affairs as a title because they used Corporate Relations.

Apparently relations are better than affairs. Personally I’ve always preferred my affairs to my relations.

We changed Government Relations to Public Affairs. At least relations with governments means something, but affairs with the public?

I can’t tell you the hours I’ve wasted over whether we should have called Internal Communications something like Employee Engagement, and the days wasted arguing over whether it should be Internal Communications or Communication.

I once re-styled myself as a Reputation Manager, but reverted to PR or Comms because nobody knew what I was on about. That said I think Reputation Management is a better title than PR and in a Ronseal moment “does what it says on the tin.”

When a prospective client of the agency I now work for I once asked in a pitch if the agency prided itself on leadership in “Evidence-based Communications”, what might I ask was “Un-evidence-based Communications.” A former colleague ventured that he always favoured “Finger in the air and hope for the best Communications.”

My real bete noir is the insertion of the words “strategic” and “integrated.” I should admit here that I frequently use both of these words to describe my approach to my trade.

These terms are only trumped by the addition of the word “digital” to everything.

This comes of hanging around with management consultants and lawyers too much. PR folk listen to these real professionals and think that they sound much more important. So we must not be merely tactical, we must be strategic. Oh and of course – we are all digital!

As PR people covert that boardroom place they think if we adopt business-speak, people will think we’re not just fluffies, we can use the same language.

Look, in PR you are either trying to help someone in business to sell more of something, make workers more productive, and the business more profitable. Or you are in politics or government pushing what PR people hate to call propaganda. Or you are in either world (or the sanctimonious but invariably corrupt ‘Third Sector’ and there to get them out of trouble and hide bad stuff.

In my own experience of both winning that boardroom place and not I’d say the recognition is earned by demonstrating that PR (or whatever we want to call it today) helps the business to sell more, to be more productive and profitable, and in extreme cases that PR saved the businesses’ bacon, or at least the bosses’ job.

The only thing that most CEOs care about when it comes down to it is their own advancement in the long-term and their bonus in the short-term. They look at someone in their organisation who is costing them not making them money and they think “school fees.”

Nobody ever got promoted to a board by changing their job title or telling people who make money for a living that a service function has the right to be there.

In their heads, faced with a PR person pushing their own game, I hear every CEO thinking “Secretary!” Sorry, I mean “PR!”

When I was a political agent (campaign manager to you – but to be fair the history of the profession of Conservative and Unionist Agents goes back to 1881 so it’s not a new invention) we termed then (and still term now when we get together for reunions) “the profession.”

We were allowed to call it a profession because we had to train and pass examinations to become a Certificated Agent and Constituency Associations were only allowed to employ those of us who were partly or fully certificated.

We could not practice without being a member of the National Society of Conservative & Unionist Agents. This has largely disappeared since “my day.” Now the party has campaign managers who are unqualified.

The same does not apply to PR. People who work in PR are more like those new campaign managers. If you say you are one then you are one. Of course the esteemed industry bodies like CIPR and PRCA in the UK now offer training and accreditation and more power to their elbow, but this is all entirely voluntary.

Most people who work in PR are not members of either organisation, let alone accredited by them.

This may change of course but I don’t see a time when PR people are professionals in the sense of a lawyer, doctor or even an old-fashioned political agent. This requires prohibition to practice if not a member of the relevant professional body.

What I think is more likely to happen if the bodies continue on that journey, is that the bits of PR activity which do not fit their world will simply be re-styled. Already most people who work in real sharp-end issues management and hard-core lobbying agencies are invisible. They don’t appear in PR Week league tables of who has earned the most dosh selling stuff.

I’ve been closer to this end of PR throughout my career. My job has nearly always been to hide something that’s gone wrong, minimise damage, or hopefully get a wrong-doer out of the do-do. I’ve never thought “PR” really does this kind of vital work justice.

An eminent QC once refused to have me called as a witness because he said that all PR people are “paid liars.” To his annoyance I had to point out for the sake of accuracy that he really was a considerably better paid liar.

I’m not sure “paid liar” would be a title that most people in the trade would covet, but then as masters of being economical or generous with the actuality we do like to spin our own reputations just as much as those of the people who pay us.

At the end of the day, or the board room table, somebody who is so far up their own arse that they choose to dress up their perfectly workmanlike trade as more than it is by stealing the language of noble and historic professions, is always going to be thought of as “Secretary!” in the CEO’s head. That said I still prefer the term secretary to PA. I always think PA sounds a bit intimate and medical.

PR is not a unique offender of course, they are all at it. The worst is the largely pointless function of “HR” (or as I call them – the people who give you your P45). In my working life they started out as Personnel, became HR, then People Resources, People Asset Managers, and now in at least one hierarchy chart I saw recently just “People.” It’s Personnel!

We all love to use these different terms. My least loved was the consultant who in one of my jobs told me she was an expert in “Restructuring and reapplication of future resources.” I looked at her blankly. She replied – “you are being restructured and your team reapplied.” I looked blankly again. She sighed and said “You don’t have a job any more.” Bloody “Secretary”.

I revert to the wisdom of The Pub Landlord. Look luv, it’s bleedin’ PR. Get over it.  I love PR. Let’s enjoy it for what it is and just get better at doing it, not waste time fussing like wet hens over what we should call it or what is or is not PR.

Rant over. It’s nearly Christmas after all.

 

 

 

 

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